On February 9th Google have unvailed Google Buzz, a service that involuntarily transforms every Gmail user’s private contact list into a public social network. While Google has suffered from privacy concerns in the past, Buzz is considered by many angry users to be crossing a line. Many loyal Google users including myself have hence chosen to disable the service. I present a list of reasons why you and your contact list should do that too.
1. Choice: We never asked for it
First and foremost we have never asked for Buzz, we have never signed an agreement to enable it and we don’t necessarily want it. Even without all of the many other reasons, this should be enough. Many of us are already oversaturated with social media and Buzz just creates more noise. The fact it is coupled with Gmail makes it harder to resist the temptation to waste even more time on depressing filtering of meaningless contextless chatter.
2. Privacy: Our private and public contacts are not the same
An abused women workplace and new partner exposed to her abusive ex; doctors’ confidential client list shared with the world; journalists’ sources automatically revealed; Iranian and Chinese activists networks mapped for their governments to easily track; your own private contacts, private no more. When asked by CNBC if users should trust Google as a friend the company’s CEO Eric Schmidt answered:
“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
I don’t know if this is the excuse he was also making internally at Google in their privacy debates over Buzz which they most certainly have had before giving the green light for this bold move. Schmidt and Google are not vindicated by the fact Facebook has been compromising its own users’ privacy and that its founder Mark Zuckerberg have been making similarly miserable statements. In response to Zuckerberg social media researcher and lead thinker on the issues around the online public/private danah boyd says:
“Privacy isn’t a technological binary that you turn off and on. Privacy is about having control of a situation.It’s about controlling what information flows where and adjusting measures of trust when things flow in unexpected ways.”
The same applies to Google. This time, it was even more “unexpected” as it simply happened.
3. Context: Who you interact with on different services is different for a reason
“By offering social communications, which have primarily been used for entertainment purposes, Buzz would bridge the gap between work and leisure.”
Google co-founder Sergey Brin on Google Buzz, quoted by the New York Times
Why would we want to do that? There are very good reasons for us to keep different contacts on different service. In fact, one of the most often complains people have about Facebook is that its popularity has ruined it. Once both my clients, my students, my colleagues, my kindergarten friends, my boss, my grandma and some hundred other people who claim they know me all “friend” me on Facebook the platform immidiately loses its social context. Would you invite all of your facebook friends to one party? Would you want to tell all of them the same thing in the same way? Yeah… me neither. Now ask yourself the same question about anyone you’ve ever emailed with on Gmail, including all the people you email with and you just can’t stand. E-mail gives us control over the contexts and tones of our different relationships and that’s its key feature. That’s something Buzz is ignoring by turning our email contact list to a social network.
We switch between different social networks all the time, we manage different social graphs (social structures) and manage different aspects of their identities in different ways on any of them. That’s exactly why we develop work relationship around our LinkdIn contacts and leisure relationships around our YouTube contacts. No Sergey, we don’t want you to bridge this for us and I wish I could add “…thanks for asking”, but you didn’t!
4. Techno-Social Simplification: Stupid algorithms make for stupid social relationships
Why does Sergey and other engineers at Google and beyond want to bridge the different facets of our social life? Because they can monetize on mapping our social media activity. They can generate a lot of income by understanding how we interact with each other and using that in a commercial context. I am not trying to criticize that, if they would’ve done a very good job of that, that would be a different issue, but they don’t.
Google (and many of those it attempts to compete with) fail to understand our social life because our social networks don’t work like computer networks. Groups of 3 don’t easily scale to 30, to 300, to 3000. “Friending” your friend is not like “friending” your grandma, your boss, your favorite celebrity. This inherit syncing problem between technological networks and social networks is an old problem that will not go away so soon. We won’t go and describe each relationship we have and assign it its own settings. Especially since unlike the way Facebook defines it, we do not experience our relationships in the same way, I might “friend” a person I admire, they might accept, but we are not equally “friends”.
Twitter has dealt with this problem by simplifying the networking and the interaction, doing away with consent based “friending” and introducing the aspect of “following”. This has also been the source of its success. But Google, being behind on the social media game was impatient to allow users to define their own networks and have decided for you to follow and be followed by your email contacts and to share any public content by simply channeling it to your central broadcast and discussion hub – your Google profile page.
Engineers love simple elegant solutions, but there’s nothing elegant in this simplification of our public life. This is a crude cop-out from finding adequate technological solutions to the fullness and richness of our social life. In the meanwhile we censor ourselves and restrict our online interactions because the platforms we have prefer simplicity and scale (clean code – easy) over intimacy, complexity and depth (messy code – yet unsolved task). In the meanwhile Schmidt prefers that if the engineers in his company cannot deal with the intricacy of our social life we should not be having it in the first place. I beg to differ.
5. Culture: Vote for an Opt-In and against an Opt-Out culture
Many social web services allow you to import your contacts. It’s a great way for them to spread the word and make sure you tell your friends and by that make the service more meaningful to your and their social life. The process is not obvious though: you are asked to enter your Gmail (or other service) username and password in an interface on the third party’s site. This makes most people think twice to make sure they actually trust that service with possiblly the most valuable access key to their online identity (which is why many users, including me never do that). Even if you chose to do that you are still invited to chose who of these friends would you actually want to invite to that service. This assuming that not all relationships are made equal. Google, to gain an advantage over its social media competitors decided to completely ignore this steps and decide it for you, in their own way – algorithmically.
This move by Google was encouraged by Facebook’s recent move to flip its users’ culture on its head automatically set content as public by default. They defend themselves by saying we simply have to “opt-out” of the public option if we so prefer. But they know there is nothing more persistent than the “temporary default”. Most users didn’t respond to Facebook’s change of service just as much as most uninterested users didn’t turn Buzz off. Many of those who were excited about Buzz also installed the Google Buzz mobile application, there they encounter yet another privacy decision made for them – their GPS location is attached to their messages by default. But hey, don’t like it? Opt out. Right? Wrong! Very very wrong!
This is a dangerous culture developed by services who take their market dominance and us their users for granted. This culture in itself might become the norm unless we express loud and clear that we want to opt-out from the opt-out culture. This is the cloud service incarnation of what we’ve seen before in the browser wars: Google Buzz on Gmail is just like Internet Explorer on Windows – a buggy, insecure and aggressive attempt to monopolize an existing market by shoving software down the throats of captive users. Therefore it should be resisted.
Don’t chose for us. We’re not stupid, we’ll chose which services to opt into and which ones to just not bother with.
6. It’s half-baked: Google admitted to a flawed testing process
This admittance of flaws is not the first time Google releases an unfinished product. They usually label new products as “beta”, though they di not do it this time. That’s ok, it is true you can’t really know a product until it reaches its full user scale and even then some surprises would happen. This calls for plugging my absolutely favorite quote by architect Stuart Brand from the book titled How Buildings Learn: “All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong.”
But some predictions are actually fair, and some wrongly made predictions can be taken into account before they are made, mainly through testing. Google has a process for that which they have used many many times before. For some reason they didn’t use it this time, they didn’t even use a hype inducing mechanism like they did with the closed beta of Google Wave. They just slapped it on everybody, privacy compromising and socially broken as it is.
Google employees tested Buzz internally, but the company’s engineer culture that thrive on simple technological systems did not alert the product developers to the social implications. Basically, they didn’t suffer from lack of social context, they were all Google employees using this service, they had social context.
There’s a saying that “Google don’t get ‘social'”. They failed to get it many times before, “Open Social” failed, no one that is not a crazy hacker gets what Wave is all about, and even Dodgeball, a company Google bought died from lack of adequate support within Google only to be revived by its founder outside of Google as the very FourSquare. Google needs professional help. Much like Microsoft pays danah boyd a nice salary to research the social implication of their actions, Google should employ more sociologists and cultural critiques to challenge the techno hemophily that dominates the labs in the Mountain View Googleplex and from there the world.
7. Security: Potential security holes have been found
Some security holes have already been reported. This again from a product that has access to the highly secure personal data of all Google users. We know some cyber-attacks from China have already compromised user data, at this sensitive point why make it easier by opening more channels for exploit.
8. Usability: The interface sucks
The main thing you hear from many Google users that are less critical of their privacy and rights is that the interface itself is unusable. Much due to the lack of social context, the first thing users are trying to do is collapse conversations that they just don’t care about. They can’t do that due to a lacking interface, and the response and changes from Google are too scattered, too broken, too late.
This will probably be the main reason why people actually chose to turn it off.
9. To show we can: It is hard to turn it off, but we’re determined enough to do it
A possible usability hurdle that is not unintended is the fact it is really hard to turn the damn thing off. When the welcome screen first appear, saying you don’t want it was not an option, saying you don’t want to hear about it right now still kept the service on. Then Google revealed a small link at the bottom of the page saying “turn off Buzz” and guess what? It’s still on! You actually have to go manually and remove your contacts from the “followed” list to actually disable this. Cnet wrote a good tutorial for that.
Update: The Buzz team have responded to some of the frustration. Opting out of buzz should be easier now. The option is not yet available on all accounts though. (again, great! but it should not be there in the first place)
10. Support: That’s the only way to make Google Buzz better
Google is a great company. I don’t think they are “evil” since “evil” doesn’t exist in the world, whenever somebody say someone is “evil” they just expect us to uncritically disprove of them. In that sense for Google to “not do evil” it needs to make sure to maintain its image and PR efforts and not have people uncritically disprove of them.
I applaud Google’s way of doing its business in many fields, and most prominently its support of open source software and free culture. I believe Google has a lot to give the social web too. They might even call it Buzz, but by accepting this flawed and dangerous service and by simplifying our relationships to make sense within it we are not helping make it better. If Buzz becomes the social platform it hopes to become it would either be if us the users cripple our social relations to fit the engineers schema or by us the users sending these engineers back to their drawing boards. The former will be an undesired result for us and in the long run for Google too. For the later read on…
What Should We Do?
There are several things we should do:
- Before you turn it off, find who are your friends who actually use it, inform them of the reasons not to. If it helps, use this article.
- Turn it off – Cnet wrote a great detailed article on how to do it. Update: It should be easier to do through the Gmail settings options under the new Google Buzz tab (see image below)
- Help your friends, family, loved ones and hated ones turn it off
- Spread the word on using the social tools that make sense to you (#buzzoff is not a bad hashtag)
- Write about it in other places and contexts. If you want to use, mix, translate parts or the entirety of this article, please do
- Follow the FTC complaint filed by EPIC a privacy advocacy group
- Talk to friends at Google, explain your concerns, they are good people, they will probably listen
What Should Google Do? (pun intended)
Much like Totyota had to withdraw its cars and manage the crisis, and based on past lessons there are four steps for dealing with these type of mistakes:
- Identify what the problem is,
- Then very quickly describe what is you’re going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again,
- and then do it. Follow through on your promise.
This not what they’ve been doing. They have responded to some feedback and rolled out some changes but they still have to:
- Identify that opt in was not the way to go – they have not done that yet
- Apologize for taking the Gmail users for granted - they have not done that
- Don’t promise “not to be evil”. Promise not to ever opt us into anything we didn’t ask for ever again – they have not done that
- Then retract Buzz from Gmail, allowing those who want to easily opt in – they have not done that
This is beyond one service or another, this is a battle on the future of web services. Google is a leader and a trend setter. Where Google goes others follow, for better or worse. We have to win this battle!
I leave you with this: